Northern Brooklyn

Helicopter noise complaints sky high as anxious, cooped-up New Yorkers feel buzzed

November 16, 2020 Jose Martinez, THE CITY
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Complaints to 311 about helicopters noisily hovering above New York have soared this year — with an analysis by THE CITY showing a more than 130 percent increase over 2019.

The 7,758 chopper noise complaints this year through Friday are over 4,400 more than were registered on 311 all of last year. The calls are coming as many New Yorkers work from home during the pandemic.

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“It’s just hell on a nice day,” said Melodie Bryant, 71, who lives on the fourth floor of a Chelsea brownstone. “There have been times when the helicopters flew so low that I have wanted to run into the street screaming.”

New 311 data shows that chopper noise reports peaked in October with 1,443 complaints — up from 528 during the same period a year earlier.

This month is on pace to surpass October: As of Friday, 679 complaints had been logged in November.

The numbers have surged even with sightseeing trips emanating from the city-owned Downtown Manhattan Heliport banned from mid-March through late July.

The 108 tour trips in October that originated from the heliport — the only one in Manhattan that allows such jaunts — amounted to just 5 percent of the volume from a year ago, according to the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which also oversees the East 34th Street Heliport.

‘More aware’

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who unsuccessfully sought a federal ban on all “non-essential” helicopter traffic over the city after last year’s fatal chopper crash atop a Seventh Avenue skyscraper, told THE CITY the increase in noise complaints is likely driven by multiple factors.

Read the Eagle’s coverage of Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s helicopter bill.

Maloney said those include more helicopters coming in from outside of the city, where they are not subject to New York’s regulations. She also pointed to the NYPD’s use of choppers during protests last summer, along with private chauffeuring by companies like Blade and Uber Copter.

“And yes, people who are working from home are going to be more aware of when helicopters fly over their home during the day,” said Maloney, a Democrat whose East River-spanning district encompasses Manhattan’s East Side, Roosevelt Island, Astoria and Greenpoint. “So it appears to be the perfect storm of exacerbating factors.”

The bulk of the complaints through the first 10 months of the year, according to 311 data, have come from Manhattan — with 2,106 logged from a single community board that extends along the East Side from 14th to 59th streets.

Read the Eagle‘s coverage of a 2016 helicopter ban that failed to eliminate tourist choppers.

Residents of community board districts that include several Queens neighborhoods, the Upper West Side and the Brooklyn waterfront were also among those making the most complaints.

“You’ll be trying to take a stroll along Brooklyn Bridge Park or in that waterfront area, but there is one every couple of minutes,” said Lara Birnback, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association. “They’re so loud, it’s so oppressive.”

Complaints about helicopter noise are also frequently posted to Twitter by critics who use apps such as Flight Radar 24 to track the path and altitude of flights over the city.

“This is a well-dispersed problem and you layer in the commuters, the police, the television helicopters, it’s constant,” said Andrew Rosenthal, of Stop the Chop NY NJ, an organization pushing to ban non-essential helicopter trips.

Out-of-towners skirt city regs

Maloney said many tourism helicopter businesses have moved out of the city to dodge New York regulations that apply only to those based in the five boroughs.

“New Jersey and Connecticut officials could step up and regulate, but they’re making money off this industry,” she said. “It’s not their citizens who are bearing the burden, so they have no incentive to act.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer has invited officials from New York and New Jersey to next month join a “helicopter task force” that a spokesperson said will focus on tourist flights. Brewer also will seek information from the NYPD and television stations on their helicopter use over the city, the spokesperson said.

City Economic Development Corp. officials said the lack of tours out of the Downtown Heliport points to the noise complaints clearly being about flights out of other chopper bases not regulated by the city.

Those include doors-off sightseeing trips from the New Jersey-based company, FlyNYON, whose helicopter was involved in a 2018 East River crash in which five tourists were killed.

“A lot of this is driven by people taking ‘shoe selfies,’ with their shoelaces undone over the city,” said Rosenthal. “These things are a public nuisance.”

FlyNYON did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

‘The noise makes you crazy’

The Federal Aviation Administration said it does not keep data on helicopter flights over the city. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the area’s major airports, did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for the Helicopter and Tourism Jobs Council, which represents the tour companies flying out of the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, said those operators “maintain strict compliance” with a 2016 agreement that capped the number of monthly flights and set over-water routes for New York Harbor and the Hudson River.

“Tour operators from downtown… are rarely, if ever, found to be the source of noise complaints,” said the spokesperson, Sam Goldstein. “As with most companies in the tourism and hospitality industries in the city, especially those dependent on international visitors, the pandemic has devastated their businesses.”

Bryant and Birnback both said they believe the increase in 311 helicopter noise complaints would be even higher if the process of filing a grievance weren’t so laborious.

“Once you do it like five or six times, and nothing happens, people give up,” Bryant said. “I have felt like such a selfish kvetch for doing this when the nation is in such trouble, but the noise just makes you crazy.”

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